On virtually the same piece of Interlagos tarmac where he passed Timo Glock to sensationally win his maiden title a decade ago, Hamilton, caught napping as he prepared for his quick lap, veered into the path of Sergey Sirotkin’s Williams, which was approaching at 150mph.
Sirotkin had to react quickly, turning the wheel of his Williams sharply to the left before ending up on the grass.
Hamilton, back in competitive action for the first time since he was crowned world champion for a fifth time a fortnight ago, set a track record to secure his tenth pole of the year, but could now face an investigation into his apparent misdemeanour.
Sebastian Vettel, who finished second, just 0.093 seconds adrift of Hamilton, could also be thrown down the grid after he broke the scales while his car was being weighed. Vettel, keen to get back on track in the fight for pole and with rain which threatened but never truly arrived, angrily gesticulated with the officials to get a move on before he drove off on his own accord and damaged the weighing instrument.
Valtteri Bottas finished third for Mercedes ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, with the Red Bull pair of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo fifth and sixth.
“That was some qualifying session,” Hamilton said. “My last lap wasn’t that good, to be honest.
“Obviously with the weather going up and down, and the Ferraris being quick this weekend, I’m going with my engineer to get the car in the best shape.”
Informed of his imminent stewards’ investigation, Vettel defended his actions. “They shouldn’t call us when the conditions are changing like that,” he said. “I think it’s unfair if somebody is pulled in. I wanted them to hurry up.”
It is 12 years since Fernando Alonso won the last of his two world championships at Interlagos and yesterday the Spaniard qualified a miserable 18th in the penultimate race of his career.